Old Whitworth, a seventy-year-old dentist who should have retired a decade ago, endured in the practiced removal of ailing choppers. Yet his fees were a pittance in post-war years, offering irresistible rates – if you weren’t too particular about the origin of his dubious credentials.
Whitworth, white-haired, save for rounded bald spot, reddened by anger from a patient who didn’t pay! Since then, everyone paid before they graced his torturing chair?
“Two shillings for an extraction.” He would say, in a tone that defied his ethical teachings, “but only one shilling and sixpence … without anesthetic?” Some took the cheaper route, surviving to warn others of the ordeal, amongst sympathetic pub ears.
Whitworth, tamer of pain, with rusted pliers on calcium bite. He heaves upon uncared wisdom teeth, their term welcoming a sorry end. Grip rigid, clamp bending soft gums, as cursing yelps pierce the cold damp room. A single light bulb the only heat, except patient’s hot-bloodied anxiety. He yanks back and forth, the grip betraying his years, as another fractured precipice splinters from contaminated crags of white and brown. Decay is another battle.
A rinsed reprieve. Calming moments, before the onslaught continues. Whitworth composed, displaying his treasury of gold fillings to the bearer of pain. Vice-gripped, he scrapes a craggy wisdom tooth, and surreptitiously dabs medicinal swabs to spare agony. Not many taste the brandy – for one and six.
Whitworth lunges, pliers re-clamped. To and fro, up and down, aligning with victim’s high-pitch shrieks! Nerve tissues severed, gum walls oozing, blood spilling, victim coughing, and Whitworth must withdraw to permit another rinse. Pity, when he was close to seizing his volatile prey.
“It’s all in the wrist,” he explains to numb, self-invited guest, as they all are. Whitworth has no favorites, only deeds for payment.
The victim slouches deeper into the flattened leather chair, eying pliers that glisten from his own slime and spit. Crack …! Blood gushes, and Whitworth is quick to sense the moment, yanking to and fro, back and forth. Until finally, he holds the prize to relief-strewn eyes.
A wisdom tooth taken, no more to trouble, torment or chew, by old Whitworth.
Educated in England, John is an immigrant to Canada. John has non-fiction articles, travel articles, fiction and poetry published in several local newspapers and anthologies. His short fiction has appeared in the Poetry Institute of Canada, Polar Expressions and Sentinel.
Such a never-ending winter, these months
of snow and ice and gloom. We’ve lost
long hours again today, pushing back
last night’s leaden blanket of wet white,
mounding piles shoulder-high, towering
till they avalanche as if to mock our labors.
The wind whips our cheekbones red
and wet and raw, my wife and I,
our shovels lufting slush, lungs puffing
huffs and grunts . . . when, within a waking dream,
she says, That sugar-white beach
in Isla Mujeres, remember? I nod,
a touch of warmth, a blush, floods over me,
a smile. Side-by-side we replay these memories,
wordlessly, relishing not just the mind’s rescue
but something bone-deep having bubbled up
like steaming waters from the earth’s core.
And I remember, as a kid, that same sensation,
a resurrection out of the depths of near hopelessness,
our schoolyard in late March beginning to thaw.
One brown patch of lawn opened where snows had receded,
and we gathered there all recess, huddled in awe.
Jet-lagged, we snugged the covers over our ears
to muffle las campanas de la catedral, tolling.
Stepped into the midday sun, blinded by how far
the day had progressed without us. Hungry
enough to settle for a vendor’s cart menu,
plastic tables and worn umbrellas, across from the plaza
where someone had switched on
fountains of spray hissing skyward and falling,
sizzling on the hot streets like rain.
Not a fountain, really, but jets
or nozzles embedded in the cobbles and brickwork,
firing at random for the simple screams
of barefoot niňos dashing to soak
their camisetas y pantelones for the joy of what
dazzle might rise on a Sunday afternoon.
And did I mention the children blowing bubbles?
Not blowing them, really, but throwing them
from homemade coat-hanger wands dipped
in pails of sudsy dish soap. Huge soap balloons
taking shape as the children twirled and laughed.
Families cheering the bubbles as each rose toward the sun,
undulating liquid rainbows. Kaleidoscopic rainbows!
As my wife and I held hands across the table,
glad to be in love amidst the bustle,
this world’s wondrous and baffling extravagance,
thousands of miles from home.
Our strategy for this day: don’t waste it
roaming the cobbles in the aimless manner
we’d diddled away the hours yesterday —
my customary druthers when accustoming myself
to a foreign locale. I like to simply set out walking,
let each new intersection dictate which way to go.
But this day at breakfast, a sunlit street-side café,
you opened the guidebook and made plans. We’d locate
the burial site of the young peasant, a revolutionary. The one
who gave his life — or so the story alleges —
not for his flag, but for the welfare of his wife and children.
You passed the map across the table, without speaking,
and pointed to our destination, tapping gently with one finger
on the exact coordinates of your chosen goal.
All morning we searched street names, asking directions,
straining to comprehend a few words of a language
not our own, charging this way and that,
until past noon we stopped for a glass of wine,
conceding we were lost. Something between us,
lost. I couldn’t guess what it was. Except that our son
and daughters were grown and gone. And when we rose
to go again, we had nowhere particular in mind, meandering
across the plaza, stepping recklessly through traffic,
lured by cathedral doors thrown wide.
In the darkness inside, I studied the carved-wood altar.
Someone might have mistaken my mumbling as a prayer.
You lit a votive and set it reverently beside dozens
of strangers’ wishes flaming. Three cathedrals
we explored that afternoon — their spires rising on the skyline,
easy to find. This day I now recall in its vaulted ceilings.
And a sadness in you, hushed at depths I’d scarcely divined.
You, slipping pesos into the slotted donation box. You,
igniting brightness. I’d give my life for you
and the children, I thought. You, your face aglow
amidst a thousand flickering shadows.
I’d never loved you more.
to pull the blinds,
— your mother and I —
inside the empty nest.
You slammed the hatch
on your Subaru, its bursting load
of fantasies and mysteries boxed,
with plush bears.
Smiled, waved, honked,
and sped away. Our last,
We stood at the window
— your mother and I —
and breathed silence.
She simmered a Mexican stew
later that afternoon, which
side-by-side across from your place
at the table, we sipped
spoon by spoon.
Lowell Jaeger (Montana Poet Laureate 2017-2019) is founding editor of Many Voices Press, author of seven collections of poems, recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Montana Arts Council, and winner of the Grolier Poetry Peace Prize. Most recently Jaeger was awarded the Montana Governor’s Humanities Award for his work in promoting thoughtful civic discourse.
The rain tapped against the window intermittently for days, hypothetical ellipses leading nowhere, until noon today, suddenly intensifying into staccato exclamation points. Monsoon season arrived during the bus ride back from the clinic at Hannam ogeri.
Not impossible to get an abortion in Korea, despite what the first doctor said, immediately offering to perform an ultrasound in his neat, contraction-free English. “We cannot do that. Would you like to see the baby?”
This clinic is forty minutes away on the 110A, on the same block as all the embassies: not behind, tucked away on a backstreet, but right on the corner, like a welcome mat. The clientele is exclusively foreign, save one Korean woman, clinging to the arm of a boy no more than 19, so blond he’s nearly translucent, the faint lines of his veins showing through his crew cut. Her nails dug gouges into his forearm, but the rest of her body angled away from him. If not for the armrest, she’d topple to the floor. At least she caught him, brought him here, even if the welts on his arm say he’s still trying to get away. Every other woman in the waiting room sits alone.
The clinic accepts cash payments only. The borrowed credit card of a pragmatic, unflappable coworker who comes from money and enjoys the association with something sordid isn’t going to cut it. Five days before the next available appointment to scrape together sixteen hundred dollars. The receptionist still demands two hundred for the appointment today, for taking up time that could’ve gone to another patient.
Did they say cash-only on the phone, their meaning lost between the language barrier and the code words?
Women, foreigners especially, in this part of Korea must be prone to problematic miscarriages, judging by the quantity of grimaces in the waiting room, the dozen pairs of eyes focused just to the left of the television. These women, all waiting to see a doctor who will record they underwent non-prosecutable evacuations.
He transferred to Japan a month ago, Seoul to Osaka, left Korea in a haze of Jagerbombs and shitty beer and cigarettes and fibbing about the condom. Everyone was thrown out of the bar at 4am, proceeded to the norae bang, where he spat the entire Eminem oeuvre, sharp joy evident with every over-enunciated bitch and faggot. It was well into Sunday morning before collapsing together on the apartment floor, because it was only going to be the once, and the sheets are clean, washing them again too much of a hassle. Worse, somehow, that he lied in the daylight, lied when he was mostly sober. Worse to have lain there and let the lie happen.
It’s impossible to leave a place entirely: a sock behind the dryer, a book lent and never returned, old text messages from now-defunct numbers. In all the ways that matter, though, he will be gone entirely by Thursday next.
Tristan Durst is a graduate of the MFA program at Butler University, where she served as the fiction editor for Booth. She will, no lie, step on your baby’s face if there’s even an 11% chance it gets her off an airplane half a minute faster.